Leaving Afghanistan: Better Late than Never
The waste of life and treasure might finally be coming to an end, but we’ve learned nothing from it.
President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war that has killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.
Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president.
We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.
We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.
So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision—roundly criticized—to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own withdrawal plans were sabotaged by the Deep State, including false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.
Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president). The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?
We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools, but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those. (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie about where our attackers came from.) Revenge morphed into nation building, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20-year war was set.
At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after the president took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.
The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy. (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an allied Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)
Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is: We had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al., just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burqas.
The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?
Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, has beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different?
Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!
Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.
Or maybe when the Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.
The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.
I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.
Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power.
Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say, “We’ll get it right this time, trust us.” And it’s hard to imagine, but nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed. It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor.
Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD will still send their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.
We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders—Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland—are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.
In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who have gone to their God like a soldier in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?
There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.